From elegance to spectacle: What the fashion industry tells us about contemporary society and politics


Bourgeois capitalism is attacked for a variety of reasons, but it is during this historical epoch that public-spirited rules came into prominence from sport, to science, to fashion, to politics. However, today, we are determinedly moving away from being rule bound to spectacle bound.

Over the past hundred years, and more, these public-spirited rules shaped our thinking. In science, knowledge has now to be demonstrated by objective rules, and not handed down by the church or the tyrant, even the guru. In politics, authority is vested in the rule of citizenship that limits the powers of the state. In sport there is the referee, the audience and the spectators, who are all equal participants, under transparent rules.

Chad Crowe

In fashion, came Coco Chanel.

Chanel’s great contribution to fashion was to make clothes comfortable and elegant for a person functioning in the rule bound public sphere. With Chanel, haute couture (literally, high tailoring) no longer meant ostentatious splendour of the few. Instead, fashion started to signify cut and style that emphasised modesty as elegance for the working person.

As Chanel said: “Modesty, what elegance.” Out went feathers, plumes, swathes of brocade and jewel studded costumes, and in came the famous ‘little black dress’. Till then gowns were so heavy, and corsets so tight, that women must have wished they could put their internal organs away somewhere. Chanel instead designed clothes that let you ride a bike, jump into a car, work all day in office and be ready for evening cocktails without rushing to the change room. A public, middle class person can now also be elegant.

It is then not the clothes you wear that matter, but what you become when you are in them. As Coco Chanel said, “the best colour in the whole world is the one that looks good on you.” That is because when you “dress impeccably, they remember the woman.” This led Chanel to observe people in their everyday lives and gave the dilettante observer, or the ‘flaneur’, an important role in the fashion industry.

Fashion houses tapped the intelligence of the flaneur who wandered about observing the middle classes  who were everywhere; on the streets, in coffee shops, in buses and metros. In short, the public was the focus of the flaneurs’ attention.

For making fashion people must be seen, they must walk, they must be visible to all. For this to happen, rules must be in place for easy public interface across occupational categories. One major reason why Chanel style European fashion never made it in India is because the Indian middle classes do not want to be seen outside their set.

They resist public transport and hate walking, consequently, it is cars that transport them from home to office and from there to parties, where they meet other car borne people.  Indian fashion, accordingly, takes a hefty dose of inspiration from what traditional royalty wore, and that class did not walk, and did not observe rules, either.

Chanel’s little black dress, or even the Chanel designed pink suit (that Jackie Kennedy loved), would seem cheap, ordinary and utterly modest for the bling adoring Indian middle classes. But today, Europe is changing and India fits in nicely with the trends developing there. In Paris, Milan, Beijing as well, Chanel style fashion is increasingly being overwhelmed by the likes of Gucci and Louis Vuitton. They are the ones now shaking the pagoda tree.

The emphasis is no longer on understatement, but in overstatement. Gone is the accent on modesty, it is now on spectacle and splendour. Unlike Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton are not as much into clothes and perfumes. The shiny, red apple now is leather goods and buckles with brand names that poke you in the eye. Accessories are the new haute couture.

Accessories are more spectacle friendly than clothing. Today’s fashion consumer is thinking differently. Saving up for a Gucci belt, even if it is worn over faded jeans, seems a worthwhile demonstration of having arrived. Catherine Deneuve is not the star model any more, but Lil Pump and Kanye West.

Gucci and Louis Vuitton do not depend heavily on stores, as Chanel does, but on net savvy purchasers who no longer need to walk in and buy with others. They can consume bags, buckles and boots in front of their smart screens in isolation. The old style ‘flaneur’ who observed and communicated, is now history, instead it is now the ‘shock factor’.

This is obviously working like a charm. In 2018, Chanel’s profits climbed 16% but Gucci and Louis Vuitton recorded increases of 33% and 19%, respectively.  The spectacle has displaced modest elegance in hearts, minds and plastic cards. So while Chanel lives on, the centre of gravity has shifted to Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and other such fashion houses.

This is not unlike cricket. Test matches are still on, but 20/20 is where the big bucks are. This trend has not gone unrepresented in politics either. Even in the developed world, old fashioned bourgeois democracy is increasingly being dwarfed by spectacle and theatre.

If you don’t agree, you have not watched the recent Trump-Biden debate.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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2 thoughts on “From elegance to spectacle: What the fashion industry tells us about contemporary society and politics

  • December 30, 2020 at 8:02 am
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  • December 30, 2020 at 10:25 am
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